Red Squirrel, Grey Squirrel
Julio was behind the bar again. His sullen eyes burned into the glass he was polishing, the lazy left one occasionally darting suspiciously towards the English table in the far corner.
“Oh Christ, it’s ‘im – oi Manuel, gis a smile! What ‘appened to that bird with the tits?” Martin turned to Rog with a look of feigned good humour, tossing back the last of his lager and clicking the fingers on his other hand with a chop-chop motion. “Garcon!”
Rog cracked up, rocking unsteadily in his faux cane armchair like one of those nodding Chinaman ornaments: “You’re a bastard, Mart. Look at ‘im run. You’ll give the geezer angina.”
A flustered Julio was stumbling towards their table, his heavy black eyes still glowering. He squeezed, wincing, between the congested chairs and settles, like a frazzled commuter racing across a crowded platform for his rush-hour connection. His black hair, thinning at the temple, hung over his flustered brow in oily strands.
“Sirs?” he stumbled on reaching their table, dropping his pen clumsily as he ferreted through his breast pocket for a pad.
“No need for that, my son,” Martin barked. “Two more of your delicious Dago lagers, if you please.”
“And sir?” Julio began, turning to Rog, whose perpetually beaming visage seemed something like salvation, set against his friend’s cruel glint. He attempted a weak smile.
“Erm, I think you’ll find one of them’s for me, sonny Jim. Not even Mart’s gonna knock back two at once – at least not this early in the evening! The night is young, as they say.”
Rog guffawed again, his deep throaty roar and fiercely rocking frame threatening to summon up a small earthquake.
Julio smiled weakly: “Of course. It is the accents, I think.”
He was trying to win them over, change the thrust and tempo of the exchange to persuade them he wasn’t the archetypal two euro waiter they doubtless took him for. He had a degree in history and was fast approaching the end of his Masters – forced to work weekends and nights in this hell-hole to scrape his way through. Surely they didn’t think he was thick, just because he was on the opposite side of the bar. Their mocking eyes suggested they did, and there was something else there that troubled him; something his limited experience of life outside Malta couldn’t pinpoint. Then again, he’d worked a double-shift and was tired: draft three of a dissertation on the American Revolution waited for him on the dusty desk in his cramped rented apartment when he finished, and he had a tutorial in the morning. Forcing a smile he realised looked more like a wince, he prayed for a placid response. It didn’t come.
“What did you say?” retorted Martin, apparently on the point of rearing up from his seat like a bald, sun-blotched cobra. Then his impassive face broke, and he guffawed at the genius of his predatory charade. Reaching a paw-like hand out to pat the waiter on his shoulder, he whispered: “Ne’er mind, mate, just kiddin’. I don’t think I can have ‘eard you right. I thought you mentioned something about accents for a second – only it’s probly just that I can’t understand a word you say. It must be the accent.”
Without thinking, Julio replied: “I did, sir. Only I was not trying to be rude – just to point out that you have a different accent to some of the customers from England who stay at the hotel. My English is not, how you say, fluent as yet, but I try.”
Mart’s twinkling eyes (smiling incessantly, even as his lower face suggested a different temperament) clouded. Rog’s cavernous laugh faded; his gaze fixing on Mart as if waiting for a seizure. Suddenly, Julio felt abandoned: alone, save for this small and threatening island, in a sea of empty chairs and tables with cheap flowers, tea lights and paper cloths. Even for 6.30pm on a Sunday evening, the lounge seemed extraordinarily empty. A barely recognisable instrumental version of He Ain’t Heavy, He’s My Brother droned anonymously in the background. For a second, the bland muzak seemed like the most human presence in the room.
After what seemed like an age, Mart’s twinkle returned.
“I think you’ll find the only one with an accent around here,” he snorted (his cockney tones grotesquely exaggerated as he emphasised the disputed word) “is the greasy queer with the castrating drainpipes. Very nice. Where did you get them from?”
Mart chortled maniacally at his crude joke, pointing as he did so at Julio’s tight white trousers. They were part of the uniform, uncomfortable in more ways than one, and the waiter was already self-conscious about them. His mother told him they made him look like a merchant seaman in “the days of the Empire” (Britain’s he assumed), while people like Mart never ceased to point out their resemblance to standard-issue clone kitsch a la The Village People.
“Anyway, Manuel, chop-chop,” Mart continued, snapping two chubby fingers that resembled crudely moulded modelling clay.
As Julio scurried dutifully away, knocking over a vase on the next table in his rush to reach the safety of the bar, he added: “And change those fackin’ trousers – you’ll do yourself a mischief!”
Mart winked at Rog, and glanced at his reflection in the already moon-lit window overlooking the port. He was wearing a red and white checked polo shirt, and a showy gold chain of big interlocking circles. His tan, though patchy, was deep (and not, for once, out of a bottle). It extended to his thick neck and close-shaven head, and made him look rather impressive, he reckoned - like a security chief for a merchant bank.
He also felt relaxed – or, at least, more so than usual. He’d been in the pool today (lukewarm and oddly greasy, he felt, but more than made up for by the complementary cocktail trolley which passed round mid-afternoon and the blazing sun which beat down as he reclined on a sun-lounger to sip it while eyeing the short-skirted waitress bending over to offer Pina Coladas to the shaky fogies on the opposite side). Before that, he’d played a round of golf with Rog and his new mate, Steve (a double-glazing salesman from Abergavenny with an annoying stutter – bloody Welsh!). Mart had won, obviously, but there’d been a surprising resilience about Steve’s swing which had made the victory seem worthwhile, rather than the walkover it normally was with Rog. They must teach them something in the valleys, he mused, mentally replaying his triumphant final putt in BBC2 US Open-style close-up.
Yet, for all the day’s merits, and while he could hardly claim to be on edge (he did, after all, have the best part of a week left before his nightmarish, no-frills plane back to Stansted), deep down somewhere inside him he could still feel the volcano simmering. He couldn’t fathom the source of his anger, or decide when or whether it would unleash itself, but it was there, as it always had been.
“Your beers, sir,” Julio stammered, hastily placing two cheap paper coasters between the pair, and planting the half-litre glasses nervily on top. He cleared the two empties and hastened away.
“Where do they get the staff?” Mart snapped, automatically.
Rog guffawed almost before the line was out, as if Mart had tripped some hidden switch on the minimal portion of his mammoth frame that was squeezed beneath the low faux-cane table.
Mart grasped the beer glass as if it were a life-saving potion every drop of which was precious. He downed two-thirds of it in one breath, slamming it back on the table like a Medieval baron toasting a savage victory in front of a posse of cowering lackeys. “Fancy a fag?” he said, nodding to the patio overlooking the pool outside.
Rog’s expression silenced him. No peace for the wicked: Martha was obviously on his back.
“What you reprobates talkin’ about?” she began, shrewishly, as she sank like a beached whale into the settle beside him. She had that perfume on again, not to mention that low-cut top and lacy bra, and that diamond necklace he’d bought her on their 25th, its prize stone dangling over the deep crevice of her maternal breasts - another vain attempt to increase the value of her stock.
“Nothin’,” he snapped, as she pecked his cheek, possessively.
“England friendly tonight,” Rog offered, sensing the tension gathering between them. “They’ll be showing it in the other bar.”
Mart nodded sagely, and drained the rest of his glass. He clicked his fingers again and Julio came scurrying obediently.
Rog felt someone squeeze his left arm, and looked up to see Hettie bending over him, her shiny lips puckered for the kill. He kissed her back automatically, relieved to have some light-hearted company to break up the unspoken impasse between the other couple. She was wearing those heels again, he noted, unsure of whether they stirred something in him or just looked tacky. The cheap scent she’d bought at the airport wafted over him like air freshener in an old people’s home. That shapeless floral dress was doing her no favours but her legs looked good, he noted, as she planted herself heavily beside him, threw one over the other, and barked at a grimacing Julio: “Beers for us too, handsome.”
An awkward silence fell, but was interrupted by the arrival of four froth-topped half-litre glasses and a complementary plate of savouries, dried meat and cheese.
“’Ere Manuel, we didn’t order these,” Mart yelled, scowling across the lounge with thinly disguised contempt.
“It’s all right – they’re free,” Martha chided him. “They do that over ‘ere sometimes. It’s a kind of custom.”
Both Rog and Hettie dived in hungrily, but Mart eyed the plate suspiciously, as if surveying an intruder.
“Fackin’ custom, that’s all we hear about these days,” he said at length. “Thought we’d come ‘ere to get away from that.”
“So, you up for the game?” Rog offered, changing the subject.
“Be honest, mate,” Mart began, ignoring the two women. “I’m ‘appy to just keep drinking. Not that bothered about the game – it’s only a friendly and, besides, it ain’t like the old days.”
“No,” Rog conceded. “It ain’t exactly the World Cup and we ain’t got the best side we’ve ‘ad, but it’s still England init?”
“Is it?” Rog was startled by the swiftness and ferocity of Mart’s response. “They’re all fackin’ blacks and spics. Lennon, Cole, Phillips, Defoe – there’s ‘ardly a white geezer among ‘em. Then you’ve got Ferdinand – he discovered America, didn’t he?”
“Listen to you two,” Martha started. “Anyone’d think you weren’t on ‘ollidee. For gawd’s sake, chill art!”
Ever the peacemaker, Rog chirruped: “He’s got a point, love. It ain’t like the old days. Bloody manager’s double-Dutch, too!”
“The ‘ole place’ll be overrun one day,” Mart said, as he grabbed his latest beer from Julio, and waved away the coaster. “Look at the fackin’ Poles – takin’ all our jobs. It’s a battle for survival - like the grey squirrels wipin’ out the reds. There won’t be any of us left in ‘undrid years – we’ll be a race mem’ry or sumin’. Then there’s the Mooslins – don’t get me onter them – wiv their fackin’ ‘eadscarves. Livin’ in fackin’ ghettoes and plottin’ to blow us ap. ’E may’ve bin a Tory, but that Enoch Powell was onter somin’.”
Having purged himself, Mart glanced up at a cowering Julio, smiling almost benevolently: “Agreed, Manuel?”
“I am sure sir is right,” the younger man replied obliviously.
“There’s a good fellow,” Mart winked. “Now run along.”
“Goin’ to preen meself for the meal,” said Martha, levering herself out of the settles. “’Ettie, you camin’?”
The two women waddled off, clutching their handbags protectively, hefty rears scraping through the cluttered lounge as they headed for the lavatory beside the bar.
“’sup with them?” Mart snorted.
Rog shrugged, flicking through mental images in an effort to find inspiration for changing the subject. Anything to get off the foreign immigrant situation – Mart’s pet hobbyhorse. He resented them, too, but like it or not they were here to stay. Some of them even seemed – dare he think it – better at their jobs than their British peers. They certainly worked harder and didn’t tend to leave the job half-done. He thought of the boiler he and Hettie had had fixed last month – British Gas had quoted £1,000, but Tolska, the cash-in-hand Polish geezer his mates had told him about, did a grand job for £550 (well, he’d charged £550, but Rog had managed, after some nagging from Hettie, to beat him down to £500).
He alighted on a glossy-looking brochure lying on the next table. Perhaps he’d find something in there to distract Mart.
“Look Mart, time-shares,” he leant over and grabbed it. “You and Marfa ever thought of getting into that?”
Mart took a long, slow gulp of his beer. Rog noticed the vein in his neck bulge and the tip of his shoulder tattoo (an exotic belly-dancer with a snake writhing round her torso – a relic of his six years in the Navy in the 1960s) peak threateningly from his sleeve.
“Already ‘ave,” he declared. “Free more years of slog, and we’re off – at least I am. Put me mam’s money and all me savings into a villa in Madeira. It ain’t time-share – we’re talking retirement. ‘Ad enough of all the yobbos and blacks back ‘ome.”
“You mean you and Martha’s emigratin’?” Rog was clearly startled. “To Spain?”
“Portugal, you ign’ramus. An’, like I say, I am, but the jury’s out on Martha.”
Though there was only one other person in the lounge, a studious-looking German in khaki shorts and pince-nez, and he was some metres away, Mart leant forward conspiratorially: “Between you-me, I’d rather you din’t menshun anyfink to Marfa. She don’t know nuffing. Now the girls have left ‘ome, I’m waitin’ to see what me options is when the time comes, if you know what I mean.”
He winked, leant back, and took a long sip of his beer. Stifling a burp, he plunged his hand into the depleted pile of savouries, and crammed the remaining items into his mouth, like a greedy baby learning to feed itself.
Rog knew he wasn’t doing a very good job of appearing unsurprised by Mart’s matter-of-fact revelation. He’d never been any good at hiding his feelings, and he could feel the beginnings of a faint twitch stir in his left cheek.
“What’s ‘smatter Rog? You look like you’ve sin a ghost or somin’. Don’t cry – yous two can come an’ stay whenever ya like.”
“Sure,” was all he could muster. “We’d both like that.”
“It’s them greys, mate – the greys have gorn an’ driven me aat. I’m one of dyin’ breed. We all are. We need to get aat while the goin’s good. Don’t tell me yoove never thought about all this. Don’t tell me yoove never fought about the future of the species. ‘Aven’t you ever wannid to cut loose, mate, knock it on the ‘ead?”
“Not really,” began Rog, still struggling to absorb the enormity of Mart’s words. He’d always been such a home bird, such a true Brit; a man who’d start complaining about sun-stroke within 24 hours of hitting the turf at Majorca and would insist on egg and chips for brekkie, regardless of where he was or what else was on offer. Rog remembered him refusing to visit tapas bars for fear of “contracting something” from the “unwashed fish” and “Dago sausage” when they’d hit the Costa del Sol for his stag do.
Rog was hauled back to the conversation by the expression of perplexity which had descended over Mart’s normally static face.
“Yer what?” he stammered. “Yiv never thought of fleein’ that dump? Wiv all the cheap beer and tits? Do I know this man?”
He made a theatrical display of this line, turning his exaggeratedly bemused face from side to side as if soliciting reaction from a live audience.
“I’m just a bit surprised, mate, that’s all,” Rog managed, struggling to articulate his thoughts.
Mart eased his expression, and attempted a reassuring smile: “Yer see, Rog, you fought you knew me inside-out – but I’m a man of ‘idden depths.”
“They’re very well ‘idden.”
“That’s the kind of guy I am.”
“But what I still don’t understand,” said Rog, finally finding his voice, “is if you’re so sick of all the immigrants and stuff back ‘ome, why are you runnin’ away to spend more time with foreigners?”
Mart looked as if he was about to choke. Then, from nowhere, he laughed – a huge, full-hearted bellow.
“You really don’ know anyfink abaat this kind of fing, do ya?” he began, struggling to regain his composure. “’Ave ya ever seen one of these” (he paused) “ornclaves?”
Rog shook his head, mutely.
“There’s golf courses and beaches and club haasis with pool tables an’ snooker an’ 24-aar bars an’ shootin’ ranges an’ swimmin’ pools,” he exploded, “bat the wan fing there ain’t is foreigners. D’y fink I’d be movin’ abroad to live wiv foreigners? Do me a favour – they don’ even speak bloody English!”
With that, Mart rose in a single swift movement from his seat; the first firm action (save raising and lowering his beer glass) he’d performed in the past half-hour. As Rog rifled through his pockets for his room number (he’d agreed tonight’s drinks would be put on his tab), he watched his friend – the friend about whom he knew so little, and to whom he meant even less – tousle the waiter’s hair, whether mockingly or good-naturedly he couldn’t be sure.
Julio turned to meet Rog’s gaze, a split-second accident of timing that left him feeling implicated in his friend’s bigotry.
“Room 26, isn’t it? Have a pleasant evening sir,” the former said, clearly relieved at his tormentor’s departure. It took Rog a full 10 seconds to realise Julio’s English was better than Mart’s.
James Morrison © 2008